What is an Air Traffic Control Degree?

Air traffic control (ATC) degree and training programs prepare individuals to work as air traffic controllers. Here are the principal learning outcomes of these programs:

  • Monitor and direct the movement of aircraft on the ground and in the air, using radar, computers, and visual references
  • Issue takeoff, ascent, descent, and landing instructions to pilots
  • Inform pilots of weather conditions, runway closures, and other issues
  • Control ground traffic at airports, including baggage and other vehicles
  • Advise airport first responders of emergencies

At the core of the ATC curriculum is an understanding of the United States airspace and the U.S. Air Traffic Control system:

The 21 zones of US airspace (divided into sectors)

The five air traffic control system divisions:

  • Air Traffic Control System Command Center (ATCSCC)
  • Air Route Traffic Control Centers (ARTCC)
  • Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON)
  • Air Traffic Control Tower (ATCT)
  • Flight Service Station (FSS)

Program Options

Associate Degree in Air Traffic Control (ATC) – Two Year Duration
Bachelor’s Degree in Air Traffic Control (ATC) – Four Year Duration
These degree programs prepare students to enter the Federal Aviation Administration’s air traffic control training program. Regardless of the degree choice, it is important to select an Air Traffic Collegiate Training Initiative (AT-CTI) program, because these programs meet FAA guidelines.

Generally, students who complete an associate level curriculum must have three years of work experience in an aviation-related field before they can begin FAA training. ATC bachelor’s graduates are not required to have this work experience.

Below is a snapshot of air traffic control coursework. Both programs cover these topics, but the bachelor’s curriculum is more in-depth.

  • Advanced Radar
  • Aeronautical Science
  • Air Transportation Analysis
  • Airport Systems and Airport Operations Management
  • Aviation Communications
  • Aviation Human Factors
  • Aviation Law and Regulation
  • Geography of Transportation
  • Meteorology
  • Principles of Air Traffic Control
  • Principles of Flight
  • The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)
  • The National Aviation System

While earning their ATC associate or bachelor’s degree and fulfilling the related requirements, graduates need to obtain a recommendation from their school so that they can sit for the FAA’s bio-data assessment and Air Traffic Selection and Training Test. Based on test results, the FAA selects and hires a group of graduates to enter the next phase of training.

Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Academy Training Program – Two to Five Month Duration
This intensive training is made up of instruction in the classroom and on an ATC simulator. Below are some of the courses from the FAA air traffic control curriculum. After completing the program, candidates become developmental controllers. Over the next two to four years they receive further, on-the-job training that prepares them for final certification as an air traffic controller.

  • Basic Obstruction Evaluation and Airport/Airspace Analysis
  • Airspace and Procedures
  • Terminal Basic Radar Training
  • Air Traffic Basics (Terminal)
  • Air Traffic Basics (Terminal Radar Approach Control - TRACON)
  • Initial Tower Cab Training
  • Application Software User Training
  • TRACON Skill Enhancement Workshop
  • Tower Visibility
  • Terminal Radar
  • Tower Data Link Services
  • Enhanced Traffic Management Coordinator (ETMC)
  • Air Traffic Database Management
  • Air Traffic Basic (En Route)
  • Air Traffic Facility Training Administration
  • Air Traffic Managers’ Best Practices
  • Airport Surveillance Radar
  • Airport Service Detection Equipment
  • Surviving ATCT Emergencies
  • Controller-in-Charge (CIC) (En Route)
  • Controller-in-Charge (CIC) (Terminal)
  • Radar Gateway (RGW) Controller Training
  • ATC Communications
  • Primary and Secondary Radar
  • Altitude Assignment
  • Terminal Wake Turbulence
  • Aircraft Performance and Characteristics
  • Air Traffic Memory Guide
  • Weather Graphics Interpretations
  • Situational Awareness – En Route and TRACON
  • Flight Progress Strip Distribution
  • Transfer of Control
  • Preventing Runway Incursions
  • Enhanced Terminal Voice Switch
  • Traffic Alert and Collision Avoidance System (TCAS)
  • Automated Weather Sensors System (AWSS)
  • Airport Lighting
  • GPS Air Traffic Satellite Navigation
  • Weather Satellite Data Interpretation
  • Adverse Weather
  • Holding Aircraft
  • Lost Communication Procedures
  • Leadership Education and Dynamic Simulation

Degrees Similar to Air Traffic Control

Aerospace Engineering
Aerospace engineering degree programs teach the analytical, computational, and engineering and design skills needed to work in the aerospace industry. Students learn how to apply this knowledge to the manufacturing, testing, and monitoring of civil or commercial aircraft, military aircraft, missiles, rockets, spacecraft, lunar vehicles, and space stations.

Aviation is about more than piloting aircraft. The course of study chosen by an aspiring pilot will differ from that selected by someone who wants to be a dispatcher, an aviation mechanic, or an airport manager.

Engineering Technology
Engineering technology programs teach the engineering skills required to assist engineers in their work. Common classes are computers for engineering technology, construction methodologies, structural systems, strength of materials, and technical drawing.

Some of the subfields of engineering technology are civil engineering technology, construction engineering technology, aerospace engineering technology, and automotive engineering technology.

Environmental Engineering
This branch of engineering is concerned with finding solutions to environmental problems. Degree programs in the field prepare students to work as environmental engineers, who develop plans to prevent and control air and water pollution, improve recycling and waste disposal, and advance public health.

Industrial Engineering
Industrial engineering majors learn how to improve the way that industries and organizations, such as hospitals and factories, operate. They draw on their knowledge in math, science, business, and psychology to consider factors like materials, equipment, and people.

Mechanical Engineering
Students of mechanical engineering learn how to research, design, develop, and test mechanical and thermal devices, including tools, sensors, engines, and machines. These devices serve many industries, including the aerospace, medical, energy, and manufacturing sectors. In addition to coursework in engineering and design, degree programs in the field include classes in mathematics, life sciences, and physical sciences.

Meteorology degree programs teach students how to predict weather conditions. The typical curriculum examines atmospheric movement, climate trends, and ozone levels. With an understanding of these concepts, students learn about various meteorological phenomena. They learn how to use statistical analysis to forecast weather events from sun, clouds, and rain to heat waves, droughts, thunderstorms, tropical storms, tornados, and hurricanes.

Computer Software Engineering
Degree programs in software engineering teach students how to apply engineering principles to software development. Students learn how to design, build, test, implement, and maintain computer operating systems, as well as applications that allow end users to accomplish tasks on their computers, smartphones, and other electronic devices.

The typical curriculum includes several programming languages, operating systems analysis, and website design. Most programs begin with core engineering classes like mathematics, chemistry, and physics.

Skills You’ll Learn

Because the work of an air traffic controller is multifaceted, intense, and demanding, graduates of the field come away from their studies with a fairly wide set of skills that can be used in other kinds of work as well:

  • Analysis
  • Ability to concentrate and quickly process information under often stressful circumstances
  • Attention to detail
  • Communication and teamwork
  • Creative and critical thinking
  • Emotional stability
  • Math
  • Safety awareness
  • Self-confidence and decisiveness
  • Spatial awareness
  • Technical savvy

What Can You Do with an Air Traffic Control Degree?

Although air traffic controller training is of course very specific to that occupation, graduates of the Federal Aviation Administration’s ATC program may have opportunities to work in other related roles. Some positions may require further education.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) employs air traffic control graduates in the following positions:

Air Traffic Controller / Air Traffic Control Specialist

Airway Transportation Systems Specialist / Electronics Technician

  • Environmental – these technicians maintain lighted navigational aids systems, engine generators, heating/ventilating/air conditioning systems, and power sources/power conditioning systems
  • Radar – these technicians maintain airport surveillance radar, air route surveillance radar, air traffic control beacon indicators, airport service detection equipment, Terminal Doppler Weather Radar
  • Navigational Aids – these technicians maintain instrument landing systems, Very High Frequency Omnidirectional Range (VORs), Doppler Very High Frequency Omnidirectional Range (DVORs), Tactical Aircraft Control and Navigation (TACAN), and Distance Measuring Equipment (DMEs)
  • Communications – these technicians maintain the following equipment: Motorola, ITT, or General Dynamics radios; Radio Communications Link Repeater, Low Density Radio Communications Link Repeater, Small Tower Voice Switch, Enhanced Terminal Voice Switch, Rapid Deployment Voice Switch, Digital Voice Recorder System, Digital Audio Legal Recorder
  • Automation – these technicians maintain Automated Radar Terminal System, Direct Access Radar Channel, and En Route Automation Modernization

Aviation Safety Inspector (ASI)
These inspectors develop, enforce, and review civil aviation standards and regulations regarding aircraft airworthiness, pilot competence, aircraft mechanic competence, and facilities and equipment safety.

Air Traffic Control Test Engineer

Air Traffic Control Instructor

Other potential employers of ATC grads include:

National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB)

  • Officer / Administrator
  • Investigator


  • Operations Officer
  • Safety Officer

Oil Rigs and Offshore Drilling Companies

  • Air Traffic Control Officer


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